The Omicron variant: how companies should react

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The emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 has weakened hopes that the pandemic will soon fade and once again employers are questioning how they can meet their difficult obligations to keep their workforce safe. and meet the needs of their business.

The good news is that as the virus has evolved, employers have refined their strategies to control infections. By continuing to be creative, flexible and adaptive in their approaches, they can contain the threat now and handle further epidemics if other variations arise – a significant possibility given the low levels of immunization in many parts of the world, including parts of the United States. Here are some general steps they can take.

Encourage vaccination

Vaccination remains the best way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization or death from Covid-19, and those who are vaccinated are six times less likely to be infected, 12 times less likely to be hospitalized and 14 times less risk of dying from Covid -19.

In a survey of 543 U.S. employers conducted in November, we found that more than half (57%) planned to require Covid-19 vaccines for employees if the Occupational Health and Safety’s temporary emergency standard Administration (OSHA) and the Federal Executive Order of the Contractor are upheld in court. Only 25% of employers would have vaccination mandates if these two rules were reversed.

It does not appear that Covid vaccination warrants appear to have a significant impact on recruitment or retention: only around 13% of those surveyed said the warrants resulted in employee resignation, while the same proportion ( 13%) said the mandates helped recruit or retain employees. .

Providing easy access to vaccines is essential to increase uptake among those who are not highly motivated. Employers should continue to promote vaccination through flexible hours and paid time off, and they should consider joining companies that currently provide workplace vaccinations.

Consider local transmission rates in return-to-office decisions

Twenty-seven percent of companies responding to our November survey indicated that all employees whose tasks can be performed remotely have already returned to the workplace, and 56% indicated that some of those employees have returned.

We expect that many companies will now suspend the return of remote employees to the workplace until more is known about the transmissibility and severity of the Omicron variant and its ability to evade it. immunity provided by vaccines and previous infections.

The risk of transmission of Covid-19 in the workplace is strongly correlated with the rate of community infection. Businesses may feel comfortable having their remote workers return to their facilities in communities where the current weekly infection rate is low (less than 10 per 100,000). However, there are many communities with weekly infection rates above 50 per 100,000 where the likelihood of an employee bringing Covid-19 to the workplace is very high. Businesses can reduce this risk by delaying employee returns or limiting the number of employees in the workplace through hybrid work and staggered schedules.

Those who are immunocompromised – including those on cancer treatment, taking immunosuppressive drugs, or who have had organ transplants – should consider continuing to work remotely until infection rates drop significantly.

Reduce exposure through social distancing

Flexible hours and remote working helped create adequate social distancing. Additionally, employers are bringing remote workers back to the workplace gradually or in stages to increase safety as they adopt new ways of working. Employers can use behavioral economics techniques to ‘trick’ employees into maintaining social distancing in the workplace. If the capacity of a conference room is to be two people, make sure there are only two chairs in it!

Improve ventilation

Ventilation in a building has an impact on transmission, and increasing the amount of air exchanged inside decreases the risk of infection in the workplace. Improving ventilation does not always require expensive renovations; many workplaces can add more air exchanges and improve filtration systems over existing air handling systems, and some can open windows. However, employers can ignore UV lights, as there is little evidence that UV treatment of indoor air prevents transmission of Covid-19.

Decide when to recommend or require masks

The masks offer protection against both infection with Covid-19 and the infection of others. Our November poll found that 90% of employers required indoor masks; most (58%) needed masks regardless of their immunization status, and most (70%) reported mask warrants in all locations. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing masks indoors with other people, vaccinated or not, if community transmission is high or substantial. In the workplace, some employers prohibit unvaccinated employees from entering certain areas where mask wear is difficult, such as cafeterias or gyms.

Some healthy vaccinated employees may choose to wear masks indoors during any local outbreak. Employers can avoid complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act regarding masking requirements by following guidelines from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Encourage testing

Eighty-four percent of employers responding to our survey said they plan to offer regular testing, including some employers who have not implemented a vaccination mandate and are not planning to do so. . Of the employers who plan to offer testing, 80% plan to do so at least once a week. Twenty-five percent of employers expected employees to pay the cost of testing where state law permits.

The first choice for Covid-19 surveillance testing is antigen testing, which is modest in cost and provides results available in real time; However, ensuring sufficient supply remains a challenge in many parts of the country. Employers can ask employees to take the test under observation to meet OSHA guidelines and can arrange follow-up confirmatory testing for those who have no symptoms but are positive. All employees should be instructed not to come to the workplace if they feel ill.

Be careful before reinstituting trips

Most companies cut back or eliminated business travel earlier in the pandemic, and many reinstated travel when we learned of the Omicron variant. The variant could increase the risk of travel, and rapidly changing international rules increase the risk of quarantine or travel disruption.

More contagious variants mean executives should err on the side of caution in allowing employees to go to places where the risk of Covid-19 infection is high and should instead ask them to hold business meetings by video conference . Recognizing the savings in time and money and the environmental benefits of reduced travel, executives are likely to continue to limit their travel and expense budgets for the foreseeable future.

Communicate exhibitions

Many workplaces will experience cases of Covid-19 in the coming months. Employers must honestly communicate about exposures at given facilities, while respecting the medical confidentiality of employees who have reported they have Covid-19. Vaccinated employees who are exposed to Covid-19 should not be required to self-quarantine if they are asymptomatic.

Support mental health care

Meeting the mental health needs of employees will be even more important in the coming months. Rates of depression and anxiety have increased during the pandemic, and the number of drug overdose deaths in the United States topped 100,000 from April 2020 to April 2021, an annual record high. Many mourn the death of friends and relatives.

Employers can continue to provide access to virtual and digital mental health care, although they must take into account that scientific evidence for the effectiveness of many digital mental health applications is still limited.

Stay up to date on the effectiveness of interventions

Finally, we recommend that companies stay abreast of interventions to limit the spread of Covid-19 that are effective and those that have limited value. For example, we found that most companies eliminated temperature controls, which had been shown to be ineffective in reducing transmission in the workplace.

We also now know that normal cleaning is sufficient to protect against Covid-19 infections in most cases, and disinfection can be reserved for surfaces and workplaces with high traffic and high contact with a Covid case. -19 known. Employers can create more bandwidth for effective pandemic or corporate initiatives by eliminating those that minimize security.

Clinical recommendations are also updated frequently. Changes to recall, mask, travel and quarantine guidelines are posted here by the CDC.

Covid-19 has been a humanitarian tragedy and has shaken business plans around the world. Unfortunately, the pandemic is not going to end imminently. Therefore, employers and their workers must continue to remain nimble. As the local situation demands, employers must remain vigilant and implement existing and new processes that have been proven to keep employees, customers and communities safe while meeting the needs of their organizations.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published in July 2021, when the Delta variant swept across the United States. This article has been updated to cover the Omicron variant and other developments since July 2020.


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